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Executives

Jeffery A. Smisek - Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, President, Member of Executive Committee and Member of Finance Committee

John D. Rainey - Chief Financial Officer and Executive Vice President

Analysts

Jamie N. Baker - JP Morgan Chase & Co, Research Division

Mark Streeter - JP Morgan Chase & Co, Research Division

United Continental Holdings, Inc (UAL) JPMorgan Aviation, Transportation and Defense Conference March 4, 2013 11:10 AM ET

Jamie N. Baker - JP Morgan Chase & Co, Research Division

Okay. Let's get rolling with our next presentation. Very pleased to have with us, Jeff Smisek, who's the Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and President of United Continental. Jeff's been here for several years. Last -- a couple of which, he's spoken as the leader of the world's largest airline. I think that's the title he's probably not too upset to lose, given the implications for the industry of what American U.S. Airways means. But the good news is, about a year ago, United was going through what turned out to be a difficult systems integration. The good news is I just flew United recently, everything went fine. So good to hear. I'll turn it over to Jeff.

Jeffery A. Smisek

Thanks a lot. And thanks, Jamie and Mark, for having me here today. I really do appreciate it. You can read this slowly over a cup of coffee if you'd like. That's our Safe Harbor statement. I want to talk -- before I talk about United, what I'd really like to talk about is a bit about the industry itself. This is an industry that has been very fragmented or put another way, there've been too many business plans chasing too few customers and that's been unhealthy for everybody. It's been unhealthy for shareholders. It's been unhealthy for customers. It's been unhealthy for communities we serve. And certainly, unhealthy for our coworkers. So that industry consolidation has been good. And as Mark said, we don't worry about losing the title of world's largest airline, because we never really cared about that title. What we're interested in is becoming the world's leading airline, which I want to talk to you about today. This is also an industry that has learned the benefits of capacity discipline. Capacity discipline has been very, very good for this business. I think we've all learned from it. Certainly, at United, we've learned from it and we intend to continue our capacity discipline. And as I'll talk about a little bit more today, we're going to continue that capacity and you will see that we have actually shrunk our airline and will shrink our airline, so for the past 3 years, we're actually smaller than we were before. Proof we don't want to be the world's largest airline, by the way.

Also this is an industry that has learned the value of unbundling and rebundling and ancillary revenues and ancillary businesses. And as a result of the ancillary revenues, which are higher margin for us and they're also very good for the customer, these are things that customers want to purchase, want to pay for and are better for our margins. The stability that consolidation has brought and capacity discipline has brought, that stability permits us to improve our balance sheet and you've seen others and you've seen us de-lever ourselves. We're way too levered as a business today. We're de-levering ourselves. And as we do that, we're decreasing, of course, our interest costs.

And importantly, we have returned focus management teams. The days of the larger-than-life market share-driven management are over in this business, and that's a good thing because this is a business, both at United and among my fellow CEOs, where we are very focused on being professional managers. We're focused on providing appropriate returns for our shareholders. We spent the past 2.5 years building the foundation for United and it's important that we've given our coworkers the tools they need to do their job. Mark talked about the PSS transition last year. What we have today and what we're going to continue to roll out throughout this year for our coworkers are tools, you can see on the top left of this slide, this is what an agent sees in front of him or her when they're standing at the podium at the gate. This permits our agents to do a far better job, more efficiently handling customers and importantly, gives the agent upsell opportunities for our higher margin ancillary business.

We're also very focused on our direct channels, united.com, our mobile app and you will see by the end of this year, we're going to have a completely revamped united.com site, a completely revamped mobile app as we've discovered and as we've used these tools to improve our interaction with our customers throughout the interaction path of our customers. So we have an opportunity through these direct channels to touch our customers multiple times between the time they purchase and the time that they travel, which also permits us to upsell the customers.

We're investing heavily in our product. I'll talk a little bit more about that, whether it's flatbed seats or global Wi-Fi, Economy Plus, bigger bins. It's very important that we have a globally competitive product. And of course, we're very focused on our coworkers, bringing them together. We've had numerous collective bargaining agreements. We have 2 joint collective bargaining agreements: one, with our pilots; and one, that we just reached with our agents, with the IAM, which is subject to ratification right now and we are currently in joint collective bargaining negotiations with our tech ops folks, who are the folks who maintain the aircraft, and our flight attendants.

And this slide goes to the reason we merged in the first place. We created this terrific network, which has a lot -- it really has the portfolio of great geographies across the Atlantic, across the Pacific, into Latin America, across United States, with hubs ringing the United States. We fly to over 380 destinations today and half of the Fortune 100 companies are located in our hubs. We're also investing in a modern and fuel-efficient fleet and fuel-efficient operations and investing in our existing aircraft to bring them up to globally competitive standards.

And of course, our loyalty program, which is a spectacular program. Not only does it win a lot of awards, it brings a lot of value to our customers and brings, of course, a lot of value to the airline as well. And of course, we're proud to show in front of this audience the Chase credit cards that we have.

So for 2013, at United, we have 3 priorities: First, deliver solid reliable operations and I'll show you in a moment we're doing just that. We had a tough time last summer during the integration but that's behind us. We're delivering excellent operations today. Second, deliver great customer service. We lost some of the customer experience, some of the customer service in the integration. We're getting that back. We have a huge amount of focus on that this year. And then lastly, is beating our ROIC target of 10%. We're very focused on that and everything we're doing and every decision that we're making at the carrier.

So you can see from this slide, we had some tough times last summer during integration. We're back. We've averaged above 80% on time, which is our goal, since September. In January and February, we beat our goal both domestically and internationally. That's the first time that United has done that in a decade, for January and February, which are tough months for weather. And we've also, year-to-date, had a 99.6% controllable completion factor. So we make the missions when we fly the airplanes.

We are very focused on customer service. We've launched a program called It's Our Job. It's Our Job is basically 3 things. It's training and we're training 100% of our flight attendants and 100% of our agents worldwide in customer service. It's incentives. We're offering incentives, a quarterly bonus to our coworkers for hitting our customer satisfaction targets. And it's accountability. It's setting expectations and then holding our coworkers accountable for delivering great customer service. And it's important for us to continue to focus on customer service because our coworkers want to give good customer service. It's our job as management to give them the tools they need to do their job. But it's their job, and it's our job collectively, to give great customer service every day. What I want to show you here is a quick embedded video where some of our coworkers talk about the importance to them of customer service.

[Presentation]

So not only are we investing -- I think you can see from the video, the passion of our folks, they really want to do a good job. We're investing in our coworkers. We're also investing on the ground, in our facilities. Not only the new Terminal B we're building in Houston, but this is a screenshot of our new club at T2 in O'Hare. If you haven't been there, I encourage you, when you next go through O'Hare, just go over to T2 and go in the United Club. I'm assuming you're all United Club members, of course in this coat and tie crowd in front of me. And take a look, because this is the club of the future. We've got 4 more of these clubs coming this year and we're going to continue, as we renovate the clubs, with this new, sleek, modern look and more plugs, more places to power up than you can imagine in this club. We've designed this club around the business traveler.

We're also investing in the air. We're the first carrier to put global satellite-based Wi-Fi on board our airplanes. We expect to have 300 of the airplanes done by the end of this year. This is a great practice. It will also permit us to stream video on board the airplanes so our customers can entertain themselves from the onboard servers that we'll have. Bring their own tablets, their own computers, their own smartphones and entertain themselves and communicate, surf the Web, get back to the office, so you can run but you won't be able to hide. You won't be able to hide anywhere in the world when you fly United Airlines. That may be a bad thing for you, but it's a good thing, I will tell you, because I think that when we talk to our customers, this is something that they've asked us for, this is something that they value and this is something we're going to deliver for them.

We're also, of course, putting in flatbed seats. We've got the most flatbed seats of any U.S. carrier. We're putting -- we've got bigger bins on the Airbus aircraft. We're more than halfway done on those. We're retrofitting our PS fleet, nose to tail. We continue to buy brand new airplanes and that's without -- that's with capacity [indiscernible] as it is without growing our shell count. We've got 150 brand new Boeing aircraft coming, narrow-bodies coming including 100 of the brand new MAX's. We're very excited about the aircraft coming in the future including, we've got A350s coming from our friends at Airbus.

And we're investing in our technology. This is really, really important, particularly as everything converges to mobile apps. This gives us the opportunity to get information to our customer, to de-stress the travel experience, to give opportunities to interact with the customers and, importantly, opportunities to offer customers the ancillary products and services that they value, that are high margin for us.

And customers are experiencing our improved customer service. Last summer, there's no doubt, the road was torn up and a lot of our customers took detours. But now the road is paved, the lighting is in, the palm trees are all planted. It's very smooth and that road is only going to get cooler and wider over time. And you can see from this slide, a significant improvement of our customer satisfaction scores. And again, we're incenting our coworkers every quarter with a target -- and, by the way, that target increases over time, to improve our customer satisfaction.

And we're taking action to recover the revenue premium that last year's -- that we suffered because of the merger integration. And as you can see from this slide, we're getting closer and closer and closer to not only getting that gap but blowing through it, so we're recovering the temporarily lost corporate share that we had through the torn up road last summer. Moreover, we now have the data to make better revenue management decision. When you put these networks together, you don't have the history of what the demand is on a combined network. We now have that history. So we can now make much better revenue management decisions than we were able to make next -- last year, as we were sort of estimating what the demand was versus actually having the demand history, which is really valuable. And again, we're investing in our direct channels to grow our ancillary revenue.

And our goal this year is to grow our ancillary revenue by 9%. We're going to do that in 2 different pieces. The first is we're going to improve how we offer the existing products and services we have today. And the second piece is to offer new products and services to our customers. And Economy Plus has been a terrific opportunity for us because with the power of our SHARES platform, we can now price Economy Plus by seat, by route, by time of day, by distance, and we have much finer ability to price that product. And the revenue growth on Economy Plus has been spectacular for us. And also, our ability, again, during the customer interaction path, to interact with our customers and upsell our passengers, whether it's upsell to the front or whether it's upsell to Economy Plus, or whether it's Premium access, those sorts of things, we have much better ability to do that today and we're going to continue to invest in technology that permits us to do that. And as I said, we're installing global satellite Wi-Fi, which we think is going to be a terrific product for our customers, and also good for us, for our interaction with our customers during irregular operations. The irregular operations tend to stress our customers a lot. They stress our coworkers a lot. To the extent we can get more information to the customer, direct contact with the customer, when the customers in the air to let them know what's going on and we de-stress that. The tools and the technology that we have today at the gates, that we'll have in the lobbies, that we'll have in customer care, will permit our coworkers to handle our customers much more efficiently and with much more information than they ever have before. But being able to communicate with our customers in the air is going to be really valuable for customer service.

And we're very, very focused on maintaining our capacity discipline. We have learned that capacity discipline is profit maximizing and you're going to see us continue to do that. And as this slide shows, we've actually shrunk the airline a bit over the past 3 years. And we have a lot of fleet flexibility. Our intention is to continue to modernize our fleet but keep our shell count flat over the next 5 years. Now we have the ability, if we choose to do so, to grow our fleet. We also importantly have the ability, if we choose to do so, to shrink our fleet. So we have a lot of flexibility but it's our current intent to keep our shell count flat over the next 5 years because capacity discipline works in this business.

We've also used the growing stability in this business, the improvement, the transformation of this business, the improvement in our cash flows to de-lever the business. We've taken about $2.7 billion of debt off our balance sheet since 2010. And importantly, we've reduced our interest expense by 30%. And when you reduce your interest expense, that is the gift that keeps on giving. And you'll see us continue to focus on our balance sheet and focus on our capital allocation, focus very heavily on achieving our return on invested capital target.

This shows our performance over the past few years. As you can see, when you average it over the 3-year period from 2010 to 2012, although we exceeded our 10% target over that period, we did not exceed it last year. We're very disappointed in the fact that we didn't beat our target for last year. And that was the year of the tough integration. We're very focused on our return on invested capital target. We know it's important for our shareholders. It's important for us. We need to be sufficiently profitable. We need to be sustainably profitable and importantly, we need to be efficiently profitable. And that's what ROIC does for us.

So we'll continue to focus on these 3 items. We've got the entire workforce behind us on these 3. Everybody knows what we're focusing on this year. It's operating the carrier solidly and reliably, giving great customer service and achieving our ROIC target. And I'm excited about the future. My coworkers are excited about the future. And I think we've got a great future at United.

And with that, I'll be happy to take your questions.

Question-and-Answer Session

Unknown Analyst

Jeff, could you talk a little bit more about the corporate travel trend? As you went through integration, you alluded to the fact that some bumps last summer and that maybe had an impact and just as you're having conversations now or if you look at your corporate travel growth relative to your overall revenue growth, what sort of trends did you see and are you seeing there?

Jeffery A. Smisek

Well, sure. Well, a couple of things. One, you have to divide corporate travel into the managed and the unmanaged corporate travel. Small and medium-size enterprise, the unmanaged and the managed traveler. And there -- I would say, there's a differentiation between the 2. Both of those fell off last summer as you would expect them to. I would say that the unmanaged traveler fell off even more than the managed travel. We're working hard to get both back and the way you get them both back is just proving yourself. I mean, as Mark mentioned, he flew yesterday or whenever it was and had no problem. I think many of you, if you fly United, you'll see, no, you're not having a problem but actually you're getting an on-time airline and you're getting a continually better customer service. That's what our business traveler looks for. So the proof isn't just talking about it, the proof is actually doing it every single day and we are doing it and our on-time performance since September has been very good. Our completion factor is excellent. And our customers are also, this year, beginning to see the product investments we've been making sort of behind the scenes for the past couple of years. And they'll just continue to see more and more of those product investments and that's how you get the business back. So the trends we're seeing is the business is coming back. You're seeing it in our PRASM results. You'll see it in our yields. And that's how you'll judge how well we get it back. But we're clearly, as you saw on that year-over-year PRASM chart, you see that returning and we see it returning everyday as well and we expect it to continue to return.

Unknown Analyst

With the significant amount of aircraft joining your fleet, how are you deciding which you will actually purchase and how much will you lease in terms of thinking about capital preservation?

Jeffery A. Smisek

I'll let my crack, CFO, sitting here, John Rainey, answer that question, because he really badly wants to answer the question.

John D. Rainey

We're always going to look at what's best at any given point in time. Obviously, the EETC market right now is on fire and that's the best way to finance aircraft right now. It changes over time. And we've shown a tendency to kind of move that around and vacillate the way we finance aircraft, but right now it's tough to justify financing anything other than in a EETC.

Unknown Analyst

Load factors have continued to improve. At what point do you feel like you're going to need to add capacity back because load factors are just so high and you're not -- the last-minute business traveler can't get a seat?

Jeffery A. Smisek

Oh, I think we can solve that through pricing as well.

Unknown Analyst

Your counterparts –- to the left here, counterparts at Delta have made a fairly definitive statement about longer-term outlook for capital spending and the view effectively is that there probably, in any sort of plausible scenario, wouldn't be more than a 15% to, call it, 25% increase from current levels going forward, never returning to the sort of mid-to-late '90s type spending pace. I'm curious, given your view in the integration obviously, that you're pursuing right now, would you be willing to make a similar definitive statement in terms of longer-term capital spending requirements of the business?

Jeffery A. Smisek

Let me ask John to answer the longer term, but let me just do the short-term. We've had to play a lot of catch up, particularly on the United side of the house, the old United side of the house. That was a carrier that had been bankrupt and had actually deferred a lot of things just like if you lost your job, you wouldn't remodel your kitchen, right? Well, we've had to do a lot of remodeling. That's what I was deferring to and the sort of things that our customers haven't seen behind the scenes, things we've had to invest in, to bring the fleet up to and the product up to a globally competitive level. So we've had some unusual levels of expenditures since the merger, not only into merger integration but we actually have some sort of front-end loaded CapEx costs to sort of bring things up to where we need to be and where we need to be competitive. Longer-term, I'll ask John to answer that.

John D. Rainey

Sure. So one of the key elements that we look at is return on invested capital. And obviously, we can maximize return on invested capital this year but deferring all CapEx. But when we purchase an airplane, we think of this as a capital investment over the life of that airplane and we look at return on invested capital over the life of the airplane. And so we're always going to have periodic measured replacement of aircraft. We've got 700 planes today. So if you assume a 25- to 30-year useful life of those, you're going to be replacing 30 a year. And we're going to have that. To Jeff's point, we've got this year and last year, we've had a higher than normal, what I would call, non-aircraft CapEx. Certainly, we're going to get past that. As we think about sort of managing the business and capital allocation going forward, our D&A this year, depreciation is about $1.6 billion, $1.7 billion. And I'd love to get to a point where from a gross CapEx perspective, we're pretty much just matching D&A. I think that's a good way to think about managing the business and you overlay on top of that, the fact that we'll pay down a lot of non-aircraft debt and have normal debt amortization. And then assuming we hit our return targets, then you have a scenario where you're spending off pretty good cash flow and you can have a very good discussion about the right cash flow allocation and including what goes to shareholders.

Unknown Analyst

Willingness to offer a target is when that gross capital spending reaches the D&A threshold?

John D. Rainey

I don't know the year necessarily. We certainly should expect to see it go down, I think, appreciably over the next few years. We are at sort of a peak right now. But a lot of that are items that we think are a good use of cash. Jeff alluded to the fact that we're putting lie-flat seats on planes, Wi-Fi, things like that. These are things that will enable us to hit our return targets and we need to make the necessary investment in them right now.

Mark Streeter - JP Morgan Chase & Co, Research Division

Jeff, I've asked you before about product and you mentioned playing catch up in. A few years ago, you were playing catch up maybe with the domestic product and really sort of leapt forward with putting in the JetBlue DIRECTV product in your domestic coach cabin. Now you're rolling out Wi-Fi and so forth. If you had to do it all over again, would you rip all those systems out and just have the Wi-Fi? Is that the future?

Jeffery A. Smisek

Well, I think there's a lot of future in Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi of the past wasn't available to be sufficient to where it is today, right? And it was a very different kind of product. The DIRECTV product has been a home run for our passengers. It's been an excellent product. The reality is, I think, that the technology is passing that up over time. And I think that the future is in Wi-Fi, as long as it is the kind of Wi-Fi we're putting in, which is fast, broadband satellite-based, because we're a global airline and you've got to be in contact. If you're flying on your way to Australia or you're flying on your way to Paris, you've got to be in contact as well. And of course, that permits us to put onboard streaming video as well, which I think is good. We will have to do other things like put power, certainly for aircraft that have stage links where the customers could run out of power on their own devices. But yes, I think that is the future. I think that LiveTV is a good product, has been a good product, but all things change and the technology is making strides and it's good for the customers. And particularly, with LiveTV, we can't communicate with the customer, lest we show them a commercial. But with Wi-Fi, we can, and that, I think, is going to be really beneficial for us and for the customers.

Mark Streeter - JP Morgan Chase & Co, Research Division

Great. And for now, you're still obviously the world's largest airline and before I've gotten you into trouble asking about questions about Washington D.C., but with sequestration and everything going on right now and some of these ridiculous hearings regarding American and U.S. Airways in service to different airports, I mean, do you think, is there hope that Washington can get focused once we get through American and U.S. Airways and really start to fix some of the problems and the impediments fix -- facing the industry?

Jeffery A. Smisek

Your question is, is there hope? There's always hope, Mark. I think that there will come a time when our Congress appropriately focuses on a national airline policy. And certainly, our industry group, Airlines for America, is very focused on that, and I'm personally very focused on that. And I do think we are making -- that we have the beginnings of some progress there. Not only with the FAA but with Congress itself. I think that it will -- I think, ultimately, we will get to a more rational structure of this business as a structured business with things we can do, both the industry -- the structuring conduct of our own industry. But additionally, I think that regulatory reform and tax reform and modernization of air traffic control will occur. That is a multi-year process. We have to be patient. We've been working at it a long time but I think there is hope for it, yes.

Unknown Analyst

Jeff, an industry question. The industry is profitable. Profitability appears to be sustainable. There's access to capital. Leasing companies have aircraft. There are planes in the desert. Since Skybus and the round of all business class carriers in the North Atlantic flamed out, there haven't been any meaningful start up efforts here in United States, why not?

Jeffery A. Smisek

Well, I think, a number of things. I think that the carriers themselves, the larger carriers, the what used to be called the legacy carriers, they've reformed themselves both in terms of their own cost, their own product, their product offerings, the breadths of their networks. There's very little that a LCC can offer a business customer today. We can take a business customer anywhere. I mean, I like to joke, if you can't fly on us, you can fly on Star Alliance, you don't want to go there, but it's true. And we offer so much to the business traveler today. Now is there room for the niche airlines, the Spirit's of the world? Of course, and that's fine. That's a different set of customers than we -- but in terms of threats to our bread-and-butter, I think not, simply because we have the network. We have the product and we have the ability to continue to improve that and continue to improve the product offering. Ultimately, the customer votes. And what we can offer, what we offer today at United, what we're going to be offering over the next few years is spectacular, very hard to compete against when you're a small carrier.

Unknown Analyst

A bit about capacity discipline, I guess, I'd just be interested in how you think about your maintenance spend replacement?

Jeffery A. Smisek

I'm sorry, I missed it. It went in and out. What was that?

Unknown Analyst

If you're talking about an accelerated replacement capacity discipline...

Jeffery A. Smisek

Accelerated aircraft replacement?

Unknown Analyst

Yes, how you thinking about your...

Jeffery A. Smisek

Well, I think replacing aircraft as are appropriate given the age of our fleet and some of our fleet is not fuel-efficient, older aircraft. Take the 757s that we fly domestically, those are -- we're turning all those into beer cans and we will replace them with modern and fuel-efficient Boeing narrow-body aircraft, 737-900ERs in particular. And for our wide-bodies, we have the A350, and of course, the 787. So our thought process isn't an acceleration of that, it's just taking out the less fuel-efficient airplanes and putting modern and fuel-efficient airplanes in their place. As John says, with a fleet our size, with 700 aircraft, you would expect in the range of roughly 30 aircraft a year just replacing the ordinary course over the life -- just over the life of the aircraft.

Unknown Analyst

So in terms of your actual maintenance spend going down in theory then if you're kind of keeping the flat and you've got more...

John D. Rainey

In the first 2 quarters this year, we have a higher than normal maintenance increase. I've talked about on our earnings call, that it was going to be up, I think, about $40 million due to specific engine events. But over a longer period of time, as we began to get a more efficient fleet, we would expect to see improvements in our maintenance costs.

Jeffery A. Smisek

Oh I see. I'm sorry, I may have missed it because you were in and out on the mic. But one thing you should be aware of as well is that there's a certain amount of preventative maintenance and this is not safety-related maintenance. This is aircraft reliability maintenance, again, that the old United in its bankruptcy deferred. We're playing catch-up on that. If we take a look at the performance over 747-400 fleet, which, last year, was not good. We're making investments in those fleets for preventative purposes to make sure that we -- those fleets are reliable, far more reliable than they have been in the past. The same thing with the 767-300 fleet, the old United 767-300 fleet.

Unknown Analyst

Just following up on the CapEx discussion, what was the actual CapEx number in 2012 and what's the plan for 2013?

John D. Rainey

2013, our gross CapEx is about $2.5 billion. On a net basis it's, I think, $1.4 billion, and that's a little bit more on a gross basis than what it was in 2012. 2012 was $2.3 billion, I believe.

Unknown Analyst

Historically, your preference was to outsource your regional aircraft needs. You achieved fairly significant scope relief as part of the last pilot contract. Looking forward, as you intend to source larger RJs, should we assume that your preference remains to outsource rather than own that lift directly?

Jeffery A. Smisek

Well, if you mean by own the lift and operate it, that's different than owning it, right? If your question is owning it, that all depends upon, since the costs of those aircraft were passed through to us, if we could finance those aircraft less expensively than a third-party could, and thus finance and own the aircraft and have, in effect, save on the pass-through, of course, we would do that or we'd certainly consider doing that. If that's your question, so, yes, we'll obviously look at that. I mean, they'll continue to be operated by third-parties but in terms of the ownership of the aircraft, that's just a financing decision.

All right. Well, thank you all very much for having us. Appreciate it.

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